This tournament had levels of importance far beyond its Premier 5 designation. As the No. 1 player, this was Halep’s first tournament since her third round Wimbledon lost to Su-wei Hseih and No. 3 Stephens warmed-up at the Washington DC tournament last week with a round two departure. Gearing-up for serious runs at the US Open, they had a lot to prove to themselves, their coaches and us!
Up 6-2 in their increasingly lopsided rivalry, Halep prevailed in the two-hour and forty-one minute match 7-6(6), 3-6, 6-4. It was physical, requiring both players to empty their tanks and all reserves. While some are already labeling this the best match of the year, others have demonized it as lacking variety and passion. In a re-match of their French Open Final, this match was far from a flat. It was no moonfest or backboard return snooze. The match, indeed this tournament was instructive in handicapping the field for the US Open. But what I learned or re-learned from this match was far more significant.
On the big stage, Halep and Stephens share the same weakness, making their matches seesaws of momentum shifts. The mental lapses or walk-arounds zap them of their confidence. It rains down double-faults and errors. It has them reaching out for their coaches. It makes them question their games, stopping their flow and ability to play freely and unencumbered.
Throughout the match their fears and anxiety were ever-present. They seek perfection and frustration reigns when an error comes off their racket. With eleven double faults between them (Stephens 4, Halep 7) and a mere four aces (Halep) their serves were most affected. The match was close: Stephens’ 111 to Halep’s 109 points. Halep stepped-up when it counted most. Down 0-5 or 1-5 in the tiebreaker, she secured the set. And in the third set up 5-2, Stephens got in the zone bring the score to 5-4, but again Halep buckled down and got it done. Stephens needs the confidence of a first set win. Whereas, Halep even when fatigued, is willing to fight through her frustrations.
The growth and development of these players is impressive. Stephens has pushed aside her negative body language and is far more steady under Kamau Murray. With him she will become #1! Similarly, Halep is less volatile and more consistent with Darren Cahill. They both demonstrate understanding, trust and respect for their coaches. They need strong coaches willing to help them tap into their considerable gifts and work through their mental lapses. Both have done considerable work. Halep is further along. Stephens is more talented and athletic. Halep works hard on court, is more fearless, and plays more aggressively. She doesn’t rely on patterns or game plans as strictly. Stephens still has a tendency to play passively. But her wins and improvement has been achieved in far less time. In this match she was comfortable letting Halep control the match. Halep had Stephens on her back foot and pushed her back. When Stephens addresses this, she will be unstoppable.
On the big stage, none of this is a surprise. Alone on the court, like gladiators in the pit of a coloseum, all eyes and many cameras and microphones are pointed at them. This alone is enough to make an athlete spaz-out like Fognini or bring the drama like Murray, and Djokocic. But no, these women were calm. They played a quality match. Stephens showed there is a lot for the field to fear come August 27th. Halep only threw her racket once in frustation and she worked through a set without a coaching visit. She too is ready for the US Open. The match may have been a seesaw of mental lapses, confidence and negative self-talk but these players gave it all they had today and I for one thank them!
- Western & Southern Open (Cinncinati Aug. 13-19)
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